Above, Katie Emmets takes careful steps in her skis at the start of the 26th annual Buckwheat Ski Classic on March 24. Middle, Molly Dischner and Kiva Oken show off their fancy pants for the 25K. Bottom, Teresa Wilson, Michelle Greenstreet and Cindy O’Daniel get in the spirit of the Year of the Dragon in front of the snow wall carving at the main aid station. Andrew Cremata
First timer discovers core of BSC
Rookie racer nimble at the start, strong for the finish, ready for more
By KATIE EMMETS
The Buckwheat started the night before the race at about 11 p.m. when I decided it was time to go to sleep.
But instead of sleeping, I tossed, turned and imagined myself flying into trees the way cartoon characters do, their bodies slamming into the trunks and their arms and legs sticking board-straight on the sides.
When my alarm clock rang to the tune of cathedral bells at 6 a.m. on the 24th, I was already awake and making a list of last-minute excuses I could use to get out of this race if I felt it was necessary. I was sick already, so there was that. Maybe my dog, Scarlette, could be sick too?
You see, I was about to cross-country ski 10 kilometers, which is approximately 6.21371192 miles, and up to this point in my life I had been on skis only once. A month before the race I skied less than a mile with Jeff and Danny Brady and their dog Maya (all three of them beat me, and I got hit in the face with a tree branch and fell face first into the snow).
I am a native Floridian, and this was my first winter ever. I had never lived in snow, and I had only seen snow flurries once in my 25 years.
My friend and Skagway News intern alum Molly Dischner was in town with a friend of hers to ski The Buckwheat. All three of us went to the pre-race breakfast at First Presbyterian Church only to be further intimidated while eating wheat pancakes.
We scanned the room and saw only fit-looking athletes from out of town wearing very professional garb and talking about doing the 25K and the 50K.
This made me feel like a wimp because, as I mentioned before, I was freaking out about doing the 10K, which is the shortest distance I could do as an adult. And don’t think I didn’t think about trying to get into the kids’ 5K race – I did. But then I realized it would be more of an embarrassment to have children passing me the whole time than it would be to go really slow and get worn out on the 10K.
After talking about how nervous we were, we took off toward Log Cabin in Molly’s car. The familiar Skagway faces I saw volunteering in the Log Cabin parking lot calmed my nerves a little bit, but I realized my limbs falling off in the snow was not my biggest fear anymore – it was people I knew seeing me come in last place because at this point I was pretty sure my MPH was going to be in the negative.
The girls helped me put on my bib, and that alone made me feel as if I accomplished something, as I had never participated in a race before.
When I got to the starting line, I frantically searched for Lindsey Ellingson, a dear friend who promised she would stay right by my side the whole time. After practicing only a few times before last year’s race, Linsdey skied the 25K. She said it was a lot of work, but she managed just fine. This gave me hope for my first Buckwheat.
After clicking into my skis and getting tips from some Skagway friends on which way to face my poles, I slid cautiously and shakily over to the starting line.
With a howl from Buckwheat himself and the ringing of a cowbell, we were on our way (in the very back of course).
Coming out of the start, I tried really hard to find a good rhythm so I could get off on the right track (ski pun intended).
It wasn’t long ‘til we came upon my nemesis – a hill.
Most skiers don’t bat an eye while doing the “duck walk” (stepping up the hill while digging into the snow with slanted, outward-pointed skis and alternating the steps with sticking poles in the ground behind the body), but I cannot do this for the life of me.
Every time I encountered a hill, I went up sideways using more of a stair-stepping tactic, which was just as effective but a little more time consuming.
We finally got over all major hills in the beginning, and Lindsey and I chatted about skiing and summer and jobs. For the first time since the night before, I started to relax a little and took in the beautiful scenery I was surrounded by.
When skiers passed us, they more often than not struck up friendly conversation about the weather, or about how their pants were falling off, or about one woman’s fairy wings from the dollar store in Whitehorse.
Along the way, we ran into Tim and Carol Bourcy, Joann Korsmo, Cindy O’Daniel, Michelle Greenstreet, and Teresa Wilson. When I saw them, I realized they were the first people from Skagway, other than Lindsey, I had seen on the trail.
Of the 381 total skiers (new record), only 27 of them were from Skagway, so it was really nice to see some fellow Skagwegians.
They offered us something to drink and talked about how they weren’t really racing but came out for the fun of it. All the racers I had seen up to this point were very fast and very serious, which was a contrast to Lindsey’s and my slow pace. It was nice to know others out there were just in it to have a good time with good friends.
When we left them, I found myself hoping we would happen upon other skiers from Skagway because it was exciting to share my first Buckwheat experience with people I knew.
At this point, we were really trucking along, and as soon as I felt as if I was finally getting the hang of it, we came up to an S-curved hill. This terrified me.
I am a self-proclaimed master at going downhill (which I decided after my first and only ski), but while looking at this one hill I realized if I didn’t turn right enough when going down, I would fly off the side and land many feet below.
After two minutes of debating with myself, I decided it was not worth the risk of practically falling off what looked like a cliff. But when I made the move to take my skis off to walk down I realized I had to do it.
So I did.
I stood at the top of the hill, leaned forward and pushed off with my poles, all the while having an inner dialogue that went something like, “Katie, you totally will not die.”
I picked up speed going down and was able to turn to the right just enough that I did not fly off the “cliff.” I made it to the very end, where I accidentally veered off the trail into some deep, soft snow and decided it would be OK to fall there (I make it sound like I had a choice in the matter of falling. I did not).
It was my first fall of the day.
I laughed at myself and figured out how to maneuver my poles and myself in order to get back to the tracks.
We took off again, and a little while later we skied up to the aid station.
As soon as I got close enough to the huge snow structure, people offered me Gatorade and chocolate, and some others offered me a beer.
I took my skis off, stuck them in the snow and walked toward the huge fortress created by Skagway’s Team Alaska. This year the theme was based off the Chinese zodiac year of the dragon.
When I walked through the opening of the structure, I expected to see most of the skiers who passed me on the trail, but they were nowhere to be found.
I did, however, see familiar faces.
Paul Reichert was flipping burgers in a large fur hat and a cape, Jeremy Simmons was running around wearing a kilt, and Michael Yee was talking to his daughter Mina (this year’s Miss Buckwheat) while she was using a small toy shovel to dig through a wall to the other side.
While at the aid station, I spoke to Buckwehat about the first time the race had a Miss Buckwheat.
Twenty-two years ago when he announced two-week-old Teslyn Korsmo as the very first Miss Buckwheat, the women who showed up to the event all done up in gowns seemed very disappointed. Buckwheat said he had to tell the women, who thought the title would go to one of them, that his intention all along was to give it to a child.
After talking to Buckwheat, I made my way through the snow sculpture to take everything in. Even though there were some out-of-towners, it was mostly people I recognized from home.
It was then that I realized The Buckwheat Ski Classic is not actually about the race for Skagway. It is about community. And camaraderie. And fun.
Most of the people from Skagway weren’t even in the race and either snow-shoed out or came to the aid station after they were done volunteering. I saw Deb Potter, Andrew Cremata, Brittney Thomas and a few others I hadn’t seen since the cruise ship season ended in September, and after being voluntarily cooped up the whole winter, it was a nice reminder that summer was just around the corner.
I stayed at the aid station for about two hours talking to old friends, making new ones, eating vegetarian chili, and telling everyone how much fun I was having at my first Buckwheat.
Lindsey told me she was staying at the aid station, and though I was leaning toward that option too, I decided I had to finish the race.
I said goodbye to everyone and took off to finish the last 2.1 K by myself.
On the Caposey Cutoff, I experienced feelings akin to how I felt the first time I attended a Solstice Party or watched the Fourth of July parade on Broadway.
I remembered the people of Skagway love their town and each other.
I remembered there are so many people in this small community who volunteer in hopes of helping to make things better for others – like the parking lot attendants who organized cars or Log Cabin Ski Society members who took over planning the ski classic this year.
While I was thinking about these things, skiers passed me, children passed me . . . even dogs passed me.
But I didn’t care about being passed or coming in last any more because I was so busy being thankful for my community.
After a total of three hours and forty-six minutes, though, I did cross the finish line of the women's 10K – in 70th place.
After recovering from a near miss with the volunteer timer's lap and a narrowly avoided collision with a skier as tall as my waist, I made a decision. Whether I spend next year's Buckwheat Ski Classic scrambling to finish with my peers or chatting about the town I love at the aid station with my community, I'll be right where I belong.